How should I set a budget for my trip?

It’s all very well getting super-organised about your saving but how much money will you actually need for your career break or sabbatical?

Now I’m not going to lie and pretend this is easy, because for me setting a budget was the hardest part of planning for my 30b430 trip. Along with my general unorganised nature when travelling, there were a couple of things which made working it out difficult for me:

  1. Due to my round-the-world ticket I was going to be visiting such vastly different countries from Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, to Australia, one of the most expensive countries (outside of Europe) which you can travel in.
  2. As I was taking a career break, I didn’t want to skimp on experiences. While I didn’t mind the fact that I was going to have to stay in hostels, I really didn’t want to miss out on any activities – especially those which had made it on to my 30b430 list.
  3. I might like to pretend I’m cool and ‘down with the kids’ (actually most of the time I don’t even try and pretend). But the fact of the matter is I am a grown up and sometimes I like doing nice grown up things like going out for a nice dinner. So while I knew that on the whole I would be happy to live on the cheap, I was also realistic about the fact that there were going to be days where I just needed to go to a lovely restaurant and not worry about the bill or stay in my own room, rather than share one with nine other people. (This particularly became clear to me when watching 18-year-olds eating noodles with a slice of processed cheese melted on top in the hope that it would give them some nutrients.)

So it was very difficult to factor all of these different issues in to any kind of budget. I’ve seen other sites where people have set up flow charts and pie charts documenting all of the money they expect to spend and I am absolutely in awe of them and dream of being that organised. Although, I hate to say it, but I also know that it’s probably going to change after day one.

Because personally I think that is one of the biggest joys about travelling: you can change your mind at any time. As large parts of my trip were overland (I flew into Peru and out of Chile in South America and into Thailand and out of China in Asia) I was able to travel slowly, staying in a place if I liked it and moving on quickly if I didn’t. So when I set off on my career break I had no idea if I’d spend two weeks or two months in Bolivia or whether it would be the comparatively way more expensive Argentina which would steal my heart. I think it’s important to allow yourself the luxury of flexibility and not be too strict with yourself about the plans you made in the comfort of your own home because, let’s face it, there are very few other times in life when you can do the complete opposite to what you said you were going to do.

In the end, after staring at the figures and giving myself a headache on a scale of the ones I used to get during a maths exam, I opted to take £1,000 (roughly $1,584) for each month I was away. I did this with the knowledge that in some countries I would spend vastly less than that and in others I would go over it.

My main concern was that I didn’t want to miss out on anything I really wanted to do. This was the last year of my twenties, I had quit my job to take this trip and I had promised myself that it would be an adventure. So I reasoned that if I ran out of money earlier than planned, I’d just come home sooner rather than go home wishing I’d done something.

I kept track of my money along the way, thanks to the joys of Internet banking (no going to the cash machines and crossing your fingers and hoping for the best like the good old days) and found that in South America I came in way under budget. This was helped by the fact that I did some voluntary work at a school in Peru so only had to pay a small amount for my accommodation and also because Bolivia was so cheap – I spent just £400 ($634) in a month. However I was actually surprised at the costs in Argentina in Chile, particularly for food and transport.

Living with other volunteers meant saving money, but also going back to student life!

Living with other volunteers meant saving money, but also going back to student life!

I knew that I would definitely go over budget in New Zealand and Australia, as I had so many activities planned there: diving, glacier walking, swimming with dolphins – all of which were worth every penny. Although in Australia it did feel as though I had developed a weird relationship with the cash machine, which I would visit on a daily basis when it would spew out hundreds of dollars which I would then promptly (although not always willingly) pass on to the owner of some kind of tour company. After a month there – and £1,500 ($2,377) lighter – it was definitely time to move on!

A moment definitely worth splurging for.

A moment definitely worth splurging for.

Asia was also a mixed bag for me. In Thailand my sister came to visit so it turned into a little “holiday from my holiday”, where we stayed in slightly nicer places (it turns out my sister can’t live without air-con in 40C heat) and ate at some more pricey restaurants.

Hanging with my sis.

Hanging with my sis.

The country I was most concerned about though was Burma, as there are no cash machines in the country so you have to take all of your dollars with you. Although I had a guide book which set out a rough budget I knew that prices can change quickly and I heard such varying stories from other travellers – one guy I met who lived there said I would need at least $3,000 for a month which there was no way I could afford! I was worried that I might get stranded there with no money so in the end opted to take $2,000 and then spent a lot of time panicking that I’d have to carry that much cash with me. As it was, I needn’t have worried as after staying in basic hotels (there are no hostels in the country yet) and eating at cheap restaurants, I only spent $600 in total.

Eating like a king, on a budget.

Eating like a king, on a budget.

China was my last stop and during the first month some friends came to visit so my spending increased as we stayed in nicer hostels, ate out a lot and went on a few epic train journeys but in my second month it decreased as I did two volunteer placements.

Living the high-life in Shanghai.

Living the high-life in Shanghai.

This won’t be the way for everyone, but for me travelling with a fluid budget was the least stressful way to do it. It meant that I was careful when I needed to be but could also enjoy myself and not feel like I was making any sacrifices. I kept an eye on my finances and if I saw that I’d spent a lot in one place, I’d curb my spending a bit in the next.

To help set yourself a rough budget for your own career break or sabbatical, think about the following things:

  1. Which countries are you going to? What do the guidebooks/blogs say about daily costs there for accommodation/food/travel?
  2. What kind of trip are you planning? A strictly spendthrift one or one with a few luxuries along the way?
  3. Are there any big/expensive activities that you definitely want to do? Remember to factor them in to your costs.
  4. Are there any ways you can save money on costs along the way? For example, couch surfing, WWOOFing, house sitting etc.
  5. Set a budget, but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t always stick to it. Be prepared to change your plans!

If you want to find out more about how to save money during your trip so that you can splurge on other things, then I have some advice here and if you’re looking for some tips about how to plan a career break or sabbatical, then check this out.

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